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Film

Don’t Open That Door! # 43: THEM! (1954)

Welcome to our weekly field guide to 1950s horror and sci-fi movies and the creatures that inhabit them. This week: little tiny critters grow up to be great big monsters in THEM!


THEM!

Director: Gordon Douglas
Cast: James Whitemore, Edmund Gwenn, Joan Weldon, James Arness
US Release Date: 1954-06-19

Alernative titles: Get the Raid; Ants in My Pants

POSITIVES:

Terrific opening scene, with nicely understated cops and little girl.

Atmospheric sequences in New Mexico—spooky Joshua Tree landscape.

Sense of impending doom throughout.

Claustrophobic underground scenes in New Mexico and L.A.

Nice performances by James Whitmore and a fine ensemble cast.

A rare film that manages to effectively use child actors (!)

NEGATIVES:

Nothing comes to mind. Really, this is a terrific movie.

SYNOPSIS: Absent-minded Dr Medford (you can tell he's a professor by his funny accent) is dispatched by Washington to investigate some mysterious New Mexico murders and disappearances, accompanied by his daughter, the lovely Dr. Pat (who has no accent at all). The doctors have been sent by the Department of Agriculture, which the local police think is pretty strange, considering that none of the murder victims was a root vegetable. But when formic acid keeps showing up at the crime scene, the pieces (and the footprints) begin to fall into place. Local police sergeant Ben Peterson and FBI pretty boy Robert Graham accompany the doc and his daughter into the desert near White Sands—incidentally, the test site for the 1945 A-bomb explosion—and there discover the biggest pest-control problem in the history of the planet. Giant ants the size of Winnebagos are out there playing electronic music and generally stirring up trouble, and it's decided something must be done about "them" before they decide to do something about "us".


The science/law enforcement crew decides that the best way forward is to locate their nest—of course there's a nest! They're ants!—and bombard it with cyanide bombs before sending in a few brave souls to mop up. A thoroughly creepy sequence in the ants' underground lair ensues, with the good news being that most of the buggers are dead but the bad news being that some eggs had hatched. You didn't know ants laid eggs? Well, me neither. Or that they had queens? Yeah, well, ditto…

Naturally, what with the lousy local music scene in New Mexico, the escaped queens decide to relocate somewhere with livelier nightlife and better public schools, and in the 1950s, that means California. After a certain amount of time watching people running through hallways looking nervous, and military men looking at first disbelieving and then nervous, we find ourselves in another creepy sequence of sewage tunnels underneath L.A. that echoes the earlier scenes in the ant nest. Oh and there's a hysterical mom whose husband appears to have, um, become a formic acid receptacle and whose kids are out there somewhere. Not that we really needed any more tension, but there you go.

Think of it like this: you'll never look at those little fellas at your picnic in quite the same way again. (I'm talking about the ants, not the kids. Sheesh.)


What gets pulverized: A trailer; a general store; an old guy who used to work at the general store; a boat and its crew; another guy; maybe some kids (but you don't find out till the end); some ants.

Did you notice? The soldier who receives the wire report of flying saucers down in Texas was none other than Mr Spock himself, Leonard Nimoy, in one of his very earliest roles. Blink and you'll miss it. And oh yeah, he looks about ten.

Best line: "We'd have been notified if there was a loony killer on the loose." (Well, maybe—but then again, this is New Mexico. So maybe not.)

People like to say that… …they can see the wires supporting the ants; in other words, they say the special effects are cheesy. Myself, I don't see it. Sure, they're essentially giant puppets, but to actually see the wires? Where?

Somehow their careers survived: James Whitmore (Sergeant Ben)'s film career spanned more than 50 years, beginning with 1949's Battleground and lasting all the way into the new millennium with The Majestic (2001). His greatest role might have been as President Harry Truman in the one-man Give 'Em Hell, Harry! (1975). Edmund Gwenn (Dr. Medford) had played Kris Kringle in 1947's Miracle on 34th Street, as well as appearing alongside Laurence Olivier in Pride and Prejudice (1940). Fess Parker (Alan) would become a reliable westerns actor in such movies as Westward Ho, the Wagons! (1956) and Alias Jesse James (1959). He also featured alongside Steve McQueen in 1962 anti-war classic Hell is for Heroes. FBI agent Graham is none other than James Arness, who played the monster in 1951's The Thing From Another World—giving him major roles in two of the decade’s best monster movies. Joan Weldon (Dr. Pat) featured in 3-D western The Stranger Wore a Gun (1953), while child actor Sandy Descher, who plays the traumatized little girl, would show up in two 1955 offerings, Bible story The Prodigal and psychological thriller The Cobweb, starring Laren Bacall.

BOTTOM LINE: A top-flight movie in every way. Decades later, the monsters are surprisingly believable, while atmosphere and tension saturate this classic.

NEXT WEEK: The Mummy (1959)

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